2 months ago* I did a 10-day meditation retreat, put on the by Dhamma.org organization (they have centers all over the world, including one a few hours from me). This will be a long review since there is a lot to say!
They teach a specific type of meditation called “Vipassana Meditation”. First I’ll explain what the whole thing was like, and then let you know my opinions on it.
There a few strict rules that you have to follow during the retreat:
- “Noble Silence” for the entire 10 days – no communication of any kind, including verbal communication, non-verbal communication (gestures), physical contact, or eye contact. There are 2 times each day when you can ask an assistant teacher questions if necessary, but otherwise the entire retreat is completely void of communication. Since I was a bit late on the first day, I didn’t get to meet the other students ahead of time, and had no idea what anyone else looked like until the last day when we were allowed to talk again.
- Complete celibacy (no sexual activity of any kind)
- Can’t kill any animal (including insects like mosquitos)
- Can’t lie (not too hard since you can’t talk)
- Can’t have any intoxicants (alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, etc)
- Can’t have any reading or writing material
- No physical exercise
- No music
- …and a few others
All the rules are to facilitate meditation, minimize distractions, and allow people to get as deep as possible with their introspection.
The Content Of The Retreat (What Happens)
You can read more about what you actually do on their website (dhamma.org). Basically each day there are 10 hours of meditation, and along with eating meals, showering, the evening “discourse” (a video of the teacher (S.N. Goenka) teaching about the meditation and his philosophies on life), and a couple breaks, the day is full. A side note on food: You only get breakfast and lunch, and then fruit and tea for dinner – but surprisingly it is enough, I suppose because the physical activity is so minimal).
The first 2 days you do nothing during meditation but concentrate on your breath. This is to relax and focus your mind and get yourself in tune with your body – you also discover how out of control you mind actually is, but you get better at focusing and controlling it. For the next 1.5 days you focus on the sensations in a certain part of your face – surprisingly, you start to feel a lot of sensations going on, since you’re so focused and in tune with yourself. The sensations are actually always there, but usually you just can’t feel them. Then for the rest of the retreat you take your now somewhat tamed and focused mind and focus it part by part throughout the rest of your body, with tweaks each day on how you do that.
The main purpose of Vipassana Meditation is to undo your “conditioning”, and free yourself of all the things in your subconscious mind that are controlling the way you are, so that you can become your real unconditioned self. This is somewhat related to the Buddhist idea of enlightenment (you don’t get all the way there, or even close, during the 10 days, but apparently you make progress in that direction). They say that at your core, underneath all the conditioning, you’ll find only goodness, love, compassion, etc.
They say that your body and mind are very closely related, and the effects of everything that happens to you are stored in your body as some sort of tension, or some sensation, or something. For example, say you experience a painful rejection by an audience while doing an oral presentation when you are young. The effect of the rejection would be stored in your body somehow. From then on that affects you, and you feel nervous doing presentations. These stored conditionings that constantly affect you are called “Sankharas” (you learn a lot of new words, such as that one).
When you are meditating, and relaxed and in tune with your body, and equanimous (indifferent, just observing yourself objectively, feeling neither craving nor aversion to anything), the Sankharas start coming up to the surface. The idea is that when you just observe the physical manifestations of the Sankharas with equanimity, and they arise and pass away, the Sankharas get eradicated, along with their effects on you. (Before going on the retreat, I though that this meant I would start feeling various emotions, or having memories come into my mind, etc, but actually you only feel physical sensations).
You continue doing this until you are free of all your conditioning (takes a lot more than 10 days – it could take many lifetimes – but 10 days is supposed to be a good first step).
On the retreat you do cultivate some other good skills and attributes, such as equanimity, etc, but really the goal is to undo your conditioning.
I most definitely did experience a lot of sensations throughout my body that I would not otherwise feel, from pain to tingling to pulsing to hot and cold spots to “uniform subtle vibrations” etc, and I worked hard and did my best to remain focused and equanimous the whole time. The sensations arose and passed away, and everything always does (among many other things, they constantly stress the “law of impermanence” – everything always changes and nothing is permanent, so it is pointless to ever get attached to anything).
Interesting But Not Really Relevant
I had a hard time getting to sleep at night, because I could not turn the sensations off, and they were very distracting and kept me up.
They say that what the sensations are that you are experiencing are irrelevant. What matters is that you simply remain aware of them and equanimous to them. Most of the sensations I experienced were the mundane types of sensations I described above. I did however have a couple unusual sensations. One was the sensation of tears running down my face. The tears felt 100% real, and when they first started I wiped my face but found that there actually were no tears. No sadness or other emotions were attached to them – I only felt the physical sensations and that’s all. For a few of the meditation sessions, I had “tears” streaming down my face for the full hour. Other times, I felt like I had a big gash in the middle of my forehead, and there were drops coming from it (blood?) and running down my nose. I often still felt the tears & gash during the week after the retreat ended (when I was not meditating); after that the sensations faded away. Very interesting, but as they say, meaningless, because the point is to just remain aware and equanimous as the various sensations arise and pass away.
- It was run VERY well – it could not possibly have been run any more smoothly.
- The food was excellent.
- The accommodations were quite nice.
- Most of the discourses (videos) in the evening were excellent.
- The retreats are free, and are financed exclusively by donations. They do not allow you to donate any money until after you have completed a retreat, and even then they do not put any pressure on you to give them anything.
- I’m quite sure that the primary motivation of everyone running the retreat was love and compassion for others (which of course indirectly benefits themselves also) – to have exclusively volunteers putting in so much time and effort running such a smooth worldwide operation was very impressive. This, along with their apparent desire just to help others, is what impressed me most of all.
- Although they say all over their website that they are not a religious organization and are not sectarian, and they repeat the same thing a few times during the retreat, the fact is that they really actually are quite Buddhist. Half way through I seriously considered leaving for that reason (and also because of the constant very strange chanting of the teacher in a strange language – “Is he invoking evil spirits?” “Is he subliminally messing with my mind”?). Upon my insistence, they bent the rules and let me read a translation of the chanting, so I decided to stay. There were many other religious aspects that troubled me also.
- I think there may have been a bit of mild brainwashing going on, but I made sure to always keep “one eye open” and I don’t think I was affected. If you are going to do a retreat I encourage you to be aware of this.
The Major Negative
For me, the major negative was simply that I did not get any apparent results from the retreat. I feel the same as I did before the retreat, and I seem to act/react/think the same as before also in all the situations of my life. Therefore, unfortunately, I cannot say that the retreat was successful. Essentially, I am the same, and therefore I am disappointed.
In one of the discourses, the teacher (S.N. Goenka) explains that there are 3 ways to know that something is true. The first is that someone tells you that something is true (this is the least effective way). The second is that you figure out the truth yourself intellectually (this is the second most effective way). The third is that you directly experience something yourself and therefore know that it is true (this is the most effective way). I agree with that 100%.
Goenka constantly tells you not to accept something because someone else says so, including himself, but rather to believe things only if you experience them to be true, and he also constantly points out that by doing Vipassana Meditation, you are experiencing reality directly within the framework of your own body. This is true. But there is a big missing piece to the puzzle…
I have no direct experience that the fundamental underlying concept of the meditation is true: How do I know that the sensations I’m experiencing are Sankharas coming to the surface, and how do I know that I am eradicating them through this type of meditation? The only way I “know” this is true is because the teacher said so.
I suppose that this is why Goenka constantly tells us that the sensations are our Sankharas that are getting eradicated (we have no other way to know it), but he does not tell us that we are experiencing the sensations in our body (he doesn’t need to tell us that, because we’re directly experiencing them).
A Few More Positives (to end on a happy note)
I did learn the value of equanimity and living in the present moment. For example, I experienced the fact that a significant amount of suffering comes from resisting the present moment and feeling aversion to it – for the first few days, when I experienced pain in my legs/back from sitting for so long, I would be constantly wishing it would go away, always wondering when the meditation session would be over. And since it wouldn’t go away, and the session wasn’t over, it caused me a lot of mental anguish. After learning about equanimity, I would do my best to simply observe the pain objectively, without feeling aversion, just accepting it as it was in the present, and not thinking about the past or future, and even analyzing the pain with my mind to see exactly how it felt in different areas, what type of pain, at what point in my body it began fading away, etc – just doing as much as possible to accept it – and I found that that made it much more tolerable. The pain was still there, but my suffering was reduced.
Living in the present moment is easier said than done though, and when the pain got bad enough I couldn’t do it any more, but I did experience the value of being able to do so at least somewhat.
Buddhists say that craving and aversion are the cause of suffering, and they are also contrary to living in the present moment – for example craving is wishing for something in the future instead of accepting the present moment as it is. Somehow this doesn’t mean that you can’t set goals for the future etc – I don’t quite get how that all fits together.
It also takes determination and persistence to complete the retreat – it is not a walk in the park – so I suppose I built up some of those qualities in myself also.
I also gained some sort of control over my mind, so that is a benefit also.
So yes, I did benefit from the retreat, but I feel like they were all minimal improvements – I don’t feel like I actually eliminated any Sankharas and purified my mind or improved myself in any significant way which was the main point.
The “old students” (who had done these retreats before, and many of whom had been doing vipassana for years) for the most part did not seem particularly impressive to me – generally not the type of people I want to become like from what I could tell.
I’m glad I went, because it was an interesting experience and there were many great aspects to the retreat, but since the ultimate goal (improving myself in some way) was not achieved, I was, overall, disappointed because I got very little out of it.
Do I recommend it? Yes, IF you have 10 days to blow with nothing better to do, and IF you have read this entire review and have a realistic idea what to expect. You may also want to check out this book by one of S.N. Goenka’s students. I read it before going on the retreat and it helped me understand the theory and put the retreat into context.
There is a lot more elaboration possible, but I’ll wait to expand until I get questions about specific things.
I welcome your comments and questions. Please type them in below!
*Not actually 2 months ago from the date at the top of this page (Sept 15, 2012). I did the retreat in 2008 which is when I wrote this review. At that time I had posted this on a different blog. Since I thought the readers of this blog might find it interesting, I’ve moved it over to here. I’ve had the commenting feature for this post turned off & on over the years (mostly off) which is why the comment dates below are a bit sporadic. Comments are now on again, so feel free to leave any.